NI Paddler Experiences

Lock Down Reflections- By Stephen Creber, 27th April 2020

Bow Fiddle Rock, Moray Coast

It has been a strange month since ‘lock down’ began with wonderful weather and not being able to get out for a paddle with family and friends. However it has also been a time to appreciate all the things in the ‘great outdoors’ which we take for granted. A time to reflect on past trips and adventures and look back at photographs of these various trips.

In particular I have been reflecting on two recent but significant paddling trips.

The first of these was a week-long open canoe journey through the Hossa National Park in Finland in September 2018. This Finnish adventure was very special for me as it marked the start of retirement from the education sector and the opportunity to explore Europe’s last true wilderness area with a group of likeminded people. If you want a very special and unique paddling experience this part of Finland right on the Russian boarder, without a doubt will provide it.


In a very different way my Scottish trip last summer, with Susan and border collie Skye, was very important for me on my journey back to full fitness following a serious road accident earlier in the year. We spent the best part of five weeks in Scotland exploring sea lochs around Onich, the sound of Raasay from Applecross, canoeing on Loch Maree, the Moray coast based at Findochty and opening canoeing on the river Dee near Braemar. It was also good to be joined by our son Patrick who is based in Aberdeen, for some of our trips and to help out at the Aberdeen Canoe Club’s slalom event during the last weekend of July.

Loch Maree

Both of these adventures I would like to follow up on. I had hoped to return to Finland this autumn but have had to put things on hold until the coronavirus pandemic is over. As for the west coast of Scotland, Susan and I hope to get back over in September providing travel restrictions are lifted.

Hossa Finland

In the meantime as well as doing lots of jobs around the house and in the garden I am happy to reflect on past adventures, to plan and dream about future trips. In helping with my planning for our next Scottish trip I have been doing some reading and would recommend ‘Scottish Sea Kayaking’ by Doug Cooper and George Reid and ‘Isles at the Edge’ of the Sea by Jonny Muir. In addition I would also recommend an absolutely inspirational book ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepard. It has nothing directly to do with canoeing but is a true masterpiece of nature writing and a very uplifting read at the present time.

Hossa Finland

The lakes, lochs, rivers and open sea will be there for us all to enjoy with family and friends in the future.  However at present it is important that we stay safe and stay at home to help support the NHS and to start planning for our next adventures in the great outdoors.

Open Canoes- What a Pole Should be Made Of! By John Wilkinson, 12th May 2020

John Wilkinson with his pole

So, lets start of with some intentional good-natured hackle raising. 

Those of us that know, know that the only style of canoeing for development of maximum skills is open canoeing.  Every style of boat has is pros and cons, but the open boat would have been Da Vinci’s choice.  The open canoe is the realm of the paddlesport polymath.  What other style offers us the opportunities to develop such a wide range of paddle strokes and combination, our utilisation of knowledge of trim and edge, our need to pick and choose the route to avoid the worst of prevailing weather, the chance to run churning white water (within reason), to pole our way upstream, or snub our way down, to carry the kitchen sink when we go camping, to sail solo or in rafts, to understand and manage long portages in back country (with that kitchen sink!), to expand all of this to include another in the boat, and to do all this on small streams, river, lake and sea.

Sadly the truth is that much of the breadth of this skill set has eroded away in recent years and, in my opinion, some of the most enjoyable and challenging elements have been relegated to form little chunks of open canoe training and then shelved as oddities – namely, poling and sailing.   To address this, it was to be part of the Paddle- for-Sport plan this year to bring in some poling coaching and competition and potentially a sailing event.  However, both are clearly on hold!

John Wilkinson on the water

The intention of this short article, other than to annoy the non open boaters, is to raise some points for thoughts and discussion on canoe poles.  In this instance I’d like to focus on one area, the obvious one of materials.  This is not about selling anything so brand/makes/ retailers is not relevant.

Materials.  In short we have the commercially available options of aluminium/alloy, Carbon fibre and wood.  Each with its own benefits and failings.  These fall into feel, flex and durability. 

  • How the material feels in your hand is significant and in our climate the key tends to be how cold it is. 
  • Flex is a debateable one and worthy of discussion.  Too much flex and the pole has no power, too little flex and it is sore on the body.  A little flex also provides a nice bit of spring. 
  • Durability.  Traditional wooden poles were always seen as short-term investments – often cut when needed and discarded afterwards in a countryside with loads of trees.  The life of a pole clearly hangs partially on the skill of the owner and the ability to quick release when it is trapped.   Most poles die with their tip trapped between rocks and a heavy canoe refusing to obey the polers directions to stop.

Alloy poles are cold on your hands and feel hard to the touch, they have little flex so bend under serious strain.  They are the cheapest and usually come as splits at 12ft and around £65-70.   They float because the ends are bunged and they have air inside.

Carbon poles are warmer on your hands and have a softer feel than alloy, they flex a little but can be prone to snapping when trapped.  They are the most expensive and usually come as splits at 12ft and around £90-105. They float because the ends are bunged and they have air inside.

Wooden poles are the warmest on your hands, a softer feel than Carbon and have the most flex, and are less prone to snapping when trapped.   However, wooden poles in the UK are rare, are invariably one piece long and therefore, for postal reasons, tend to be 10ft.  You can get a wooden pole for around £70.  Wooden poles float.

John Wilkinson with his open canoe

As a traditionalist in paddle sports it would not come as a surprise that I personally use a wooden pole.  I have two, both of which have seen a good deal of service over the ten years I have had them, and one or the other of them goes with me on every open canoe paddle trip.

Fun when Canoeing with Scouts, By Leslie Carswell (B.E.M.), 2nd June 2020

Leslie Carswell (B.E.M) paddling

CANI member, Leslie Carswell, received a British Empire Medal (B.E.M.) in the New Year’s Honour List in 2020 for services to Scouting in general and canoeing in particular. Leslie tells us of how he first experienced canoeing through the scouts and what he has enjoyed most and learned since.

 “My first contact with canoeing, in a Belfast scout troop about 60 years ago building three canoes from floorboards and a new product at the time, PVC! They were so heavy that when tied to the roof of a car, we had to be careful about turning a corner.

Leslie warming up a group of Italian Scouts (only one of whom spoke English)

There was a gap until I moved to Ballymena in the 1970s. My first trip with Scouts there was down the river Bann but the kayaks were too easily turned compared with the dreadnoughts I helped build so many years ago. As I was doing a few `pas de deux` on the trip I realised it was time to do some training. Fortuitously a few of us commenced training before the infamous Lyme Bay incident.

Spreading the joys of canoeing was an easy task now we were trained. In Scouting this meant bringing Cubs, Scouts and Explorer Scouts out onto the water in the hope that many would take it up as a leisure activity and some to challenge in a sporting capacity. This also meant that fellow Scout leader, Mark Dick and I extended our role to give the opportunity to County Antrim Scout leaders so that they could take it further once we trained them to (in the old days) 2 star level. Our longer term idea was that they could eventually take over from Mark and myself in this role. However, it is too enjoyable for us to step down.

Finishing a pyramid of 11 Canadians and 3 kayaks at a local jamboree

In Scouting we have Jamborees, events for Scouts that include canoeing as an activity. I was called upon a couple of years ago to take charge with one day’s warning as the original leader suffered an injury. However, all went well with over 800 getting on and off the water safely over the week. Not bad for a 70 year old. In the next year I had a role as a Duke of Edinburgh Silver assessor for NI scouts on a wild camping/canoe trip on lakes in Canada.  Our own troop carry out a river Braid clean-up every December (an excellent way in a flow to train manoeuvring to get that pesky bit of plastic hanging from tree). 

Annual River Braid clean-up with trailer filled to brim with plastic bags

Many of us have enjoyed canoeing in different parts of the world but the greatest total enjoyment is canoeing in our own fantastic country. Within short distances we have rivers, coastlines, lakes, even swimming pools to use when weather is inclement. Let’s all celebrate what we have on our doorstep, share our enjoyment in what is a prime leisure activity. I hope you have enjoyed reading this, after all it’s all about sharing experiences, training and having FUN. Isn’t it great one gets an award for an activity we enjoy doing. It will be great when our present `lochdoine` is over!

Poling in Scotland